Art review: Galápagos - Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

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WHEN Charles Darwin landed on the Galápagos Islands on 15 September 1835 he was not impressed.

“The black rocks heated by the rays of the vertical sun like a stove, give to the air a close & sultry feeling,” he wrote in his diary. “The plants also smell unpleasantly. The country was compared to what we might imagine the cultivated parts of the Infernal regions to be.”

He did, though, grow interested in its fauna and he liked the giant tortoises roaming the island. So much so that in common with so many passing ships over the 19th century, the Beagle crew captured 50 of them in hunting parties on San Cristobal Island. Delicious. They ate every one of them on the way home.

Between 2007 and 2011, 12 artists followed in Darwin’s footsteps, this time for residencies lasting up to three weeks each. Among them were Dorothy Cross, Tania Kovats and Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller. The work they made is on show at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery.

For the past two centuries at least, people have been the problem on the Galápagos. Some years after he’d digested all that tortoise meat, Darwin would publish On The Origin Of Species, inspired in part by his encounters with the unique ecologies and variant species he observed between the islands off the shore of Ecuador. The islands were home to about 300 inhabitants in the 19th century. Now there are about 30,000.

Between the Galápagos ­tortoise, a dramatic volcanic landscape and the mystique that the islands developed through the Darwinian connection, some tourist alchemy occurred. There were 170,000 visitors to the islands in 
2010, a number too huge for work-hungry Ecuadorians to resist.

The island is also home to various scientific and conservation communities whose interests may be at variance with residents. The artists’ visits (which were all carbon offset) took place within these obvious tensions.

Organised by the Galápagos Conservation Trust and the Charles Darwin Trust and supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, the artists took part, on a kind of unspoken premise that they must somehow process the uniqueness of the archipelago without jeopardising it.

It wasn’t till at least 18 months after he got home that Darwin – who had been meeting for some time the various challenges, geological and zoological, to current theories of creation – began to piece things together. Modern naturalists point out that at the time his observations were actually pretty poor. He worked hard at home on species as unglamorous as barnacles and his research wasn’t published until years after it was written.

Similarly artists’ research does not always create neat or instantaneous results. Some recorded filmed material for long edits when they returned, some observed, photographed or drew.

Dorothy Cross, who travelled with her friend Fiona Shaw, was horrified by the changes she saw in a place she had last visited in 1994. She filmed the actress in a room full of whalebones and tortoise shells. At the Fruitmarket she shows a recent work, Whale, the skeleton of a culver whale suspended from the gallery ceiling over a rusty bucket. The short film, Ossicle, is a rocking bone, which clicks as it moves. The ossicle is a tiny bone in the ear. The natural world, she implies, is at risk of becoming a charnel house or a dusty museum at best. Can we hear that? What should we do about it?

Marcus Coates, whose work has investigated the animal/human relationship from shamanism to the imitation of birdsong, has created something close to the bone. One of the stars in the islands’ natural firmament is the Blue-Footed Booby, a bird famous for its courtship dance as well as its feet. Coates dressed himself up as a giant cardboard version of the bird and filed a new report for the local TV: traipsing about the island observing human behaviour and bitterly noting the human use of spoons when clearly regurgitation is a better way to feed children. Some of his work is a quizzical indictment of human failings. Some is just bluntly rude to the locals. After a while you wonder whether the whole thing is as much a parody of conservation and anthropology as it is an attempt to apply its values.

As an idea, Galápagos is compelling. As a show, however, it doesn’t quite hang, with inevitable starts and stops, uncomfortable disjunctions between works with different registers and interests, and aesthetically too much hardboard and hard work for a pleasant gallery visit.

But some individual works are good. I like the artist Tania Kovats and the blunt simplicity of her dead badger, presumably found squished at the side of the road near her home in Devon. It catches you when you stumble upon it, stuffed and stretched on the gallery floor, somewhere between dead and alive, the natural world and the technological one. It has an intimacy, evidenced also in Deller’s clean and unpatronising film about local cockfighting, which seems most productive.

Kovats wrote on her return: “If the natural world demonstrates a complex set of relationships and connections, a vast tree-like living thing, then the Galápagos reveal what happens if you follow a branch to the end of its reach. These islands are right at the end of a limb, strange buds blooming far from everything, and even stranger fruits hanging from them…When you sit on a branch far from the trunk it snaps easily.” It goes without saying that no one these days eats giant tortoise. «

Twitter: @moirajeffrey

Galápagos is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until 13 January.